In the most rarefied circles of government law, L. Anthony Sutin was a player. A partner in a lucrative Washington, D.C., practice, he held a senior post with the Democratic National Committee and later held three top Justice Department jobs under President Clinton. His future seemed limitless. But in 1999 Sutin veered off the Beltway to the rugged coal town of Grundy, Va. (pop. 1,100). Resolved to work in a depressed area underserved by legal representation, he went to teach at the fledgling Appalachian School of Law—one of the smallest, most remote law schools in the country.
Known for his kindness, Sutin went the extra mile for Nigerian-born student Peter Odighizuwa. He helped fund his tuition and got him a laptop. When the electric company shut off Odighizuwa’s power, Sutin paid the bill; when Odighizuwa’s van broke down, the dean bought him a used car. “He had a soft spot for every human being,” says the law school’s president, Lucius Ellsworth. “That was one of his hallmarks.”
But his compassion was not enough to protect him Jan. 16 when the disgruntled Odighizuwa allegedly went on a deadly shooting spree. The 42-year-old dean and his wife, law professor Margaret Lawton, 41, had spent part of the morning in his office, playing with their new daughter Clara Li, a 15-month-old orphan they had adopted from China only three weeks earlier. Around noon Lawton and the baby went home. A little more than an hour later, Sutin lay dying on the floor with three gunshot wounds, two of them in his back. “Peter shot me,” he moaned. “Peter shot me.”
Odighizuwa, 43, had recently flunked out of Appalachian for the second time. Shortly after 1 p.m. on Jan. 16, the father of four allegedly marched into the office of Thomas Blackwell, 41—who was talking on the phone—and with a legally purchased handgun fatally shot the popular professor twice in the neck. Moments later, authorities say, Odighizuwa shot Sutin, then walked downstairs to a lounge and opened fire on four female students, killing Angela Dales, 33, and wounding the others.
Tackled after surrendering his emptied weapon, Odighizuwa was charged with three counts of capital murder and three counts of attempted capital murder. The prosecution will seek the death penalty and expects defense lawyers to enter an insanity plea. Although not under psychiatric care, Odighizuwa, a naturalized citizen, had at times behaved erratically in class. “He would start coughing to drown out other students who were talking,” says fellow student Zeke Jackson, 40. Adds professor Wes Shinn, who heard shots and slammed his office door just in time to avoid the rampage: “Peter was an angry person. Still, you can’t foresee something like this.”
Indeed, shock pervades Grundy, where violent crime is rare. “You don’t worry if your doors are open,” says Susan Looney, a nurse practitioner. “If your neighbor is hurting, you’re hurting.” But Sutin was also mourned far beyond Appalachia. “We will miss him for the rest of our lives,” former Attorney General Janet Reno wrote in a message for his memorial service. Says Christine Varney, a friend and an attorney in Washington: “His murder is ironic because Tony spent his whole life helping people like the perpetrator.”
Sutin was a boyhood prodigy back in Bellport, N.Y., where he grew up the older child of Norman, 73, and Bonita, 68. Valedictorian of his high school, he graduated from Brandeis University and Harvard Law School. In 1985 Sutin joined the high-powered D.C. law firm of Hogan & Hartson. He met Lawton while working on the failed 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. They wed in 1991 and adopted a Russian orphan named Henry, now 4, before bringing home Clara Li. After serving as general counsel for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, Sutin was hired for Justice, rising to acting assistant attorney general for legislative affairs. Small wonder Appalachian School of Law founder Joseph Wolfe was awestruck when Sutin joined the faculty, then accepted the dean’s job. “Getting him was like getting Joe Namath for your quarterback,” he says.
Doubtless the school won’t soon forget its fallen leader and his horrific death, nor will anyone whose life Sutin touched. “He just had such a sweet, selfless air,” says his friend Cliff Sloan, 44, general counsel for The Washington Post and Newsweek Interactive. “Violence was so foreign to everything Tony stood for.”
J. Todd Foster in Grundy